A conscientious objector to suffering

Geez Magazine; November 2008

As a vegan I had to make a difficult decision tonight. Writer's block, too much information, too small a word limit. A story too many times retold but too important not to tell again. But when nothing I was writing sounded authentic anymore I realized I could no longer speak the words of others. It is time to out myself as the kind of vegan that I am: a conscientious objector to suffering.

When I converted to veganism a year ago I had no idea I would end up an activist. All the pamphlets, websites and books contained no such disclaimers. The gentle invitations from vegan friends were without warning. No one told me that changing my diet would transform my life. But here I am, thinner, smarter, stronger, happier, louder. Vegan.

I’ve spent over a year now grounded in the books, the scientific journals, the testimonies, the culture of vegan identity. I was still there this morning and it was a place I treasured above everything else. But now I realize that I was failing in my goal, quite unknowingly.

My veganism wanted to stop the suffering. I believed that it didn't matter how I achieved that goal, it was worth achieving. So I appealed in every ethical language: whatever reason speaks to you, let it be enough for you to choose veganism.

Whatever the reason, I thought. It nagged at me that so many vegetarians and some vegans recant their dietary choice for any number of reasons – whether for convenience, or at the often questionable recommendation of a doctor, or out of sheer longing for their favourite foods. Or out of need. Or, in some cases, to escape the haranguing of meat-eaters.

In pursuit of my goal I draped myself in the culture and language of Christians, of environmentalists, of health advocates – any one of which translates into veganism with relatively little effort.

But I've always done it for the animals. The one language that remains taboo, contentious. The argument-starter. The one that makes me a nut, a sappy, militant fanatic. I can explain my veganism in relative comfort if I resort to health, environmental, or spiritual reasons. But by outing myself as a conscientious objector to suffering, by implication I have exposed meat-eaters to the knowledge that they have chosen otherwise. I am reminding them of the suffering in their meat. It’s unpleasant.

So like most conflict-avoiders, I have remained closeted about the true nature of my veganism while I pursued a compromised vision. I consciously overlooked the ex-vegans and ex-vegetarians: people who found they could contribute to saving the environment in others ways; people who found that an acceptable degree of health can be attained with some meat or dairy consumption; people who believe that God's ideal contains a natural hierarchy which places humans above all other animals.

I accepted all of this because it meant skipping the argument and enabling change now. But what good is change if it changes back? As long as people are making the right choices for the wrong reasons, or even for secondary reasons, we will continue to see change without progress.

In my experience, the only language that lasts is compassion. It is a reason unto itself, unanswerable. I will no longer allow myself to believe that compassion is not enough – that having compassion for animal suffering is a weaker motivation than reducing pollution, lowering cholesterol levels, or working towards our perception of God’s ideal.

Even if there were no other reason to be vegan, even if every other reason could be proven false, why is compassion not enough? When compassion is reason enough for everyone, we will no longer need to defend the rest.

I feel tired now, thinking about what that will mean for me tomorrow and in the days to come. But I'll sleep easy tonight, having made the decision to live actively, honestly, and unashamedly in the pursuit of a unified, non-violent, compassionate, vegan world.